Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Silences is divided into two major parts of equal length: “Silences” and “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets. Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions.” Through essays, quotations, and comments, Tillie Olsen presents the history of both well-known and obscure literary figures, stressing how cultural injustices and inadequacies have deterred these and other individuals, especially women, from fulfilling their literary potential.

Part 1 consists of three essays. The first, “Silences in Literature,” was originally delivered from notes at a colloquium at the Radcliffe Institute in 1962, then edited from a taped transcription, and published in Harper’s Magazine in October, 1962. In it, Olsen discusses the various types of unnatural creative silences, the conditions for full functioning, and the results of inadequate time and energy.

The second essay in part 1, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century,” was first addressed to university literature teachers at a Modern Language Association Forum in 1971 and appeared in College English in October, 1972. Here, Olsen declares that in the twentieth century, for every four or five books written by a man, a woman writes one. Only one woman out of every twelve writers, however, receives recognition equivalent to that of her male peers. Why are so many more women than men silenced? Blaming history, attitudes, education, motherhood, the literary-critical establishment, and internalized literary gynophobia, she requests that teachers read, teach, criticize, and write about women writers, encouraging first-generation female writers so that gender equality will eventually result.

The final essay in part 1, “Rebecca Harding Davis: Her Life and Times,” appeared first in 1972 as an afterword for the Feminist Press reprint of Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861). Davis’ instant fame and acceptance by such figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson diminished significantly after she was married and had devoted her life to her family. Although she continued to write prolifically and profitably, she never gained her former literary...

(The entire section is 909 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Silences seeks to explore what Tillie Olsen terms “unnatural silences”—those circumstances that thwart the creative process and lead writers to delay, interrupt, abandon, and even forgo promising careers. Part 1 moves from a general discussion of debilitating influences through an analysis of the specific factors that disproportionately silence women writers. The section ends with a long interpretive account of the life and times of Rebecca Harding Davis that makes concrete Olsen’s contention that writers need a nurturing environment that affords them both a fullness of time and a totality of self if they are to prevent their work from being either compromised or abandoned altogether. Part 2, which is appropriately entitled “Acerbs, Asides, Amulets, Exhumations, Sources, Deepenings, Roundings, Expansions,” serves to ground and substantiate the arguments that Olsen has made in the first section of the book. To underscore the connection between the two sections, Olsen includes cross references in part 2 that point the reader to the relevant page(s) in part 1.

As her use of internal pointers makes clear and as Olsen acknowledges in her preface, Silences is not an orthodox volume of literary criticism. Instead, part 1 contains a compilation of previously published essays that are reinforced by what might best be termed the liner notes contained in part 2. The structure of the book, no less than the manner in which it is presented...

(The entire section is 421 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

To measure the impact of any individual or single work on the study of literature or women’s issues invites rebuttal. In the case of Tillie Olsen, however, at least part of the impact is documentable. Not only did the publication of Silences result in the rediscovery of works long out of print, including Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861; 1972), but it also goaded publishers and academics to reconsider works that they might have previously ignored or rejected as being outside of the mainstream.

Much of Olsen’s impact is not documentable. While one can cite Alice Walker’s reference in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983) to Olsen as one who has literally saved lives, one cannot document the number of writers (female and male) who have found a fellow traveler, a supporter, in her works and who have found in her prose the will to continue.

Despite the silences that dominate Olsen’s own productive years, she has given others a fresh context in which to assess both their own aspirations and the rather homogenous reading lists that have traditionally defined the literary tradition. She has also given them the resources (in the form of quotations and reading lists) to identify and study their predecessors and to learn from them.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Following an introduction that explains her critical perspective, Faulkner advances a seamless analysis that integrates the many aspects of Olsen’s writings. Throughout the book, she presents Olsen as a beacon of hope, liberation, and challenge. Insights into and drawn from Silences inform the entire volume, but chapter 5 (“Language and Silence”) is especially pertinent to Olsen’s analysis of the unnatural silences that cross generational, class, and sexual boundaries.

Howe, Florence. “Literacy and Literature.” PLMA 89, no. 3 (May, 1974): 433-441. Howe addresses the importance of a diversified canon, citing studies and personal experiences that demonstrate the stultifying impact of male-biased reading materials on adolescents and college students. Her observations reinforce and provide a context in which to approach Silences.

Orr, Elaine Neil. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Orr approaches Olsen’s work from a theological perspective that revolves around Olsen’s life-affirming vision and faith in transforming possibilities. Chapter 6, “When the Angel Gains a Voice,” is the most important chapter vis-à-vis Silences. It advances the argument that Olsen sees creativity as an expression of the sacred or holy.

Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby H. P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Pearlman and Werlock set out to balance what they see as a sometimes overly adulatory treatment of Olsen’s work. The book contains a useful chronology that is followed by both a 1984 interview/essay and a biographical sketch. Their critique of Silences is weakened by a reliance on textual summary and secondary quotation, but they include both a useful bibliography and helpful footnotes.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Limning: Or, Why Tillie Writes.” The Hollins Critic 13, no. 2 (April, 1976): 1-13. Rose explores what she perceives to be a disparity between the aesthetic vision that shapes Olsen’s essay “Silences” as well as her fiction and the polemical tone that she perceives in “One of Twelve.” She suggests that Olsen has sacrificed her vision and understanding in support of a feminist rhetoric.

Shulman, Alix Kates. “Overcoming Silences: Teaching Writing for Women.” Harvard Educational Review 49, no. 4 (November, 1979): 527-533. Infusing her critique of Silences with her own experiences, Shulman concludes that the work functions as a multigenerational writers’ workshop through which trusted collaborators share revelatory experiences.